As research scientists we are justifiably inclined to be skeptical about data that are subjective, or qualitative, in nature—data such as anecdotal accounts of earthquake effects and the modified Mercalli intensity (MMI) estimates derived from them. Especially where perceptions of earthquake ground motions are concerned, noninstrumental data are generally considered suspect at best. “Everyone knows” that people exaggerate the severity of earthquake effects; “everyone knows” that subjective perceptions are not to be trusted.

The engineering community has been known to discount instrumental data as outliers in light of more general damage patterns, but the seismology community generally turns to MMI...

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